Ban the Button: It’s time for a new metaphor!

Ban the button logo
A couple of months ago I was visiting my grandmother with my father and son and we thought it would be great to get a family photo with all four generations together. My dad passed his Android phone to my aunt and she lined up a shot.


Something struck me as I heard the camera’s tinny rendition of a camera shutter complete with winding film. I turned to my dad, “Why on earth do they insist on using a camera shutter noise on these things? I bet no-one over the age of 25 even knows what a camera shutter sounds like!”

“What’s a camera shutter?”, my son asked as if on cue.

Imagine if we’d had the same conversation about cut and paste. Even I don’t remember a time when people editing documents had to actually do it with scissors and glue. The metaphor has now become the reality as generations of computer users grow up whose only experience of cutting and pasting has been when editing documents on a computer.

Having cut out sections of documents with virtual scissors and pasted them into place with virtual glue we usually need to ‘save’ them as virtual files in virtual folders. We ‘open’ virtual documents on a virtual desktop and throw things away in a virtual bin. Call me a curmudgeonly old git but it all just seems a bit… boring. I’m sure that many office jobs in the 1950’s and 60’s were that mandrolic but in an age when our computing platforms are so powerful that we could have pretty much any form of user interface we can dream up, why do we continue to insist on bringing that kind of tedium into the 21st century?

Now it would be unfair of me to try to imply that there has been no progress at all. There have been some notable examples of new technology designed to try and promote the use of new ideas for human computer interaction, most of which appear to come from the manufacturers of game consoles. I’m thinking of things like the Kinect or Wiimote but while these make for interesting toys I don’t see much of a take up in the boringly sensible corporate world. At the office we still want desktops and our old fashioned WIMP environments.

One of the trends that is becoming apparent now is the way that information is managed and consumed. We seem to prefer to deal with information as a series of narratives, not expressed in one huge document but rather as a thread of smaller pieces linked together, stored and consumed across many systems and devices potentially between several different applications. If we follow that idea through, I reckon we’ll see the documents of the future becoming more like a living web of facts and dimensions brought together within some kind of context. This would make it a lot easier to assemble and keep them up to date, they would effectively do it themselves.

I do wonder if this is a place where the next set of metaphors for human computer interaction can emanate from. I mean what exactly is a document in that context? Certainly not something you could photocopy and stick in a drawer. It would seem to me to be more of a mind map or a tagged snapshot of our thoughts or knowledge at one instant in time. Where is it stored? In a folder in a filing system? Well, no, it’s everywhere I need it.

So how do we encourage innovative thought in this area then? Well one way to get people to be inventive is, ironically, to give them constraints. Innovation comes from the need to adapt and overcome problems. I was involved in a project for a mobile app a while back where we sat down and specified the UI in a document for use by an external company we sometimes outsource to. Everything was all signed up and agreed and they went off and started developing it for us. As the project was nearing completion they provided me with a couple of screenshots that I could include in a weekly report. There was something about them though that didn’t sit right with me. Then it struck me. I didn’t want to include them in the report because they looked… well… boring. Now this was no fault of the team who built the app, we had provided the spec and it was far too late to change anything. It did get me thinking about how it could be done differently though.

One idea I came up with was to ban certain types of control from the UI. For example, I think many developers use far too many buttons. Buttons certainly have their place but they can be misused in my view. Buttons are a way of capturing the user’s intent but I’m convinced that there are often much more subtle and powerful ways of doing that than simply presenting the user with a shed load of things to click on. Anyway, I thought, what would happen if we banned them from the UI? Entirely. Would that force the developers to come up with something new? I’m sure the rest of engineering thought I had completely lost the plot when I offered that as an idea but I really do think it’d work because it would force them to think laterally and creatively to solve the problem. I think I’m tempted to run with this one and start a campaign to Ban the Button!

Ok so back to the photograph: having some kind of a noise come out of your mobile device when you’re taking a photo is actually pretty useful. What would be a good replacement noise for a mechanical shutter then? A beep, a loud voice saying, “Smile and say cheese”, a few bars of Def Leppard’s rock ballad Photograph perhaps? I don’t know, that’s a tough one. Let me know if you have any ideas!

  1. Rob Y said:

    I read a similar article a while ago, commenting on the icons which have been in grained into peoples brains… A 3 1/2 floppy disk to save something?!? Nice. Not sure how you would capture a USB stick / cloud storage in a 16×16 icon, but that’s not what we’re discussing here 😉

    • Hi Rob, thanks for the comment 🙂 Could be worse I suppose. Imagine a save button had a cassette tape as an icon! If you look at some of the newer tools for document writing such as Google Docs and Evernote they don’t have a ‘save’ button at all other than the ability to take a local copy of something. The ‘save’ menu item is either labelled ‘share’ or it doesn’t exist at all… which is one fewer buttons… woot! I mean who’d spend time writing something down if their intent isn’t to be able to read it later?

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